Summary of "The Violence-Negotiation Nexus: South Africa in Transition and the Politics of Uncertainty"

Summary of

The Violence-Negotiation Nexus: South Africa in Transition and the Politics of Uncertainty

By Timothy D. Sisk

This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: Timothy D. Sisk. "The Violence-Negotiation Nexus: South Africa in Transition and the Politics of Uncertainty." Negotiation Journal. vol. 9, no. 1. 1993.

Sisk examines South Africa's transition to democracy and finds that negotiations are actually correlated with a rise in political violence. Sisk tries to explain this violence- negotiation nexus, and explores ways of dealing with such negotiation associated violence.

Understanding the Violence-Negotiation Nexus

Conditions were ripe for a negotiated settlement when the African National Congress (ANC) and the white minority government both realized that they were locked in a mutually harmful stalemate. Negotiations for a transition to majority rule opened in 1990. However, rather than the expected decrease in tensions, political violence actually increased well above apartheid-era rates. Annual deaths from political violence ranged from 500 to 1250 in the late 1980s. The death rate ranged from 2250 to 3750 in the early 1990s, during the transition negotiations. Sisk did find that the nature of the violence differed. Apartheid-era political violence was generally limited to violence between the white regime and black liberation forces. While this type of violence continued during negotiations, there was also an increase in political violence between a variety of factions for a range of purposes.

Sisk considers structural factors and triggering events which could account for the violence. The disenfranchisement of the black majority is the primary factor creating a predisposition toward violence. Areas of violent conflict are usually highly urbanized with very high levels of unemployment, and a scarcity of basic resources. Sisk notes that "in these desperately poor, urban and semi-urban communities, social rules are eroded and alternative social structures (such as gangs and warlords) thrive."[p. 82] Influxes of rural migrant workers add to the tension, as the more traditional rural workers often clash with the more radical urban groups. While some theorists suggest that ethnic differences play a role creating conflict, Sisk argues that conflicts along ethnic lines are actually expressions of deeper insecurities. Given these structural factors, almost any event can serve to trigger violence. Triggering events have included political rallies, strikes, assassinations, random attacks, and even apolitical crimes of passion.

To explain the upswing in violence during negotiations, Sisk turns from general structural factors to political conditions. Transitional negotiations mark a time of great political uncertainty. There is a lack of defined political rules as the rules of the old regime are rejected, and the rules of the new are yet to be formulated. This is also a time of high expectations by many actors who hope to gain power in the new regime. Sisk says, "Expectations peak as the moment of political realignment nears; parties and groups may expect to gain in the new game, or to lose. As each negotiation-related event occurs and a new step in the writing of the rules is made, uncertainty and expectations crescendo in an overwhelming sense of fear and insecurity."[p. 90] This fear and insecurity leads parties to resort to political violence as a "beyond-the-table" tactic to influence negotiations and gain political ends.

Sisk finds three basic motives behind this tactical use of political violence. Actors may employ violence in order to derail the negotiation process. This may be the goal of extremists who oppose any compromise. Actors who fear being marginalized in negotiations may use violence, and the threat of further violence, to insure that their interests are addressed. Finally, actors may use violence to destabilize and so weaken an opponent. It is hoped that this will also strengthen the hand of their own negotiators, by demonstrating their side's ability disrupt the negotiation process.

Controlling Political Violence

Negotiations in South Africa were undertaken in response to a mutually harmful, violent stalemate. Yet negotiations have triggered further political violence. Sisk observes that "the more politicians seek to control political violence, the more it flares. The more it flares, the more difficult it is to make the concessions needed to reach a settlement."

Sisk examines the failure of the 1991 peace accord between the ANC and rival IFP. Leaders of the two parties reached an agreement. The accord was heavily publicized in the strife-torn areas, with pamphlets declaring "Leaders Make Peace." However, violence continued and even increased. Soon even the leadership abandoned the accord. Sisk points out that violence cannot be controlled from the top down. Leaders must be able to demobilize their constituencies, but the ANC and IFP were unable to do so. Given the fear and insecurity motivating such political violence, leaders generally will not have the power to simply demobilize their constituencies with the announcement of a peace pact.

For this reason, Sisk argues that peace pacts should focus on joint management of political violence. The central element of this strategy is that creation of a shared set of rules. The presence of shared rules will itself help to reduce the uncertainty which is a source of political violence. Another important element of this management strategy is to include leaders of all the parties. With joint management comes joint responsibility. Management should focus on de- politicizing the violence, at least around central issues, so that concessions and negotiations on those issues can proceed.

The National Peace Accord exemplifies the joint management approach. The Accord created a National Peace Committee, made up of leaders from each group, which is the final authority on all disputes and cases of political violence. The Accord sets forth a code of conduct governing the behavior of all political parties and the police. It specifies the rights and responsibilities of all parties, creates specific procedures for dealing with cases of violence, and contains explicit enforcement provisions. It focuses on violence management at the regional and local levels by establishing regional and local peace committees, and acknowledges the ongoing nature of violence management by creating permanent task forces with full-time mediators.

There have been some difficulties in implementing the National Peace Accord. The main problem has been noncompliance. While the Accord does include enforcement provisions, they are not sufficiently strong. Regional and local committees have been difficult to establish. They lack sufficient government resources, and have had difficulty in getting local leaders to participate. In addition, moderate leaders willing to participate in the peace process have been targeted for assassination. Where local committees have been established, their work has been hindered by the climate of intimidation.


Sisk argues that transitional negotiations produce uncertainty and heightened expectations, which produce fear and insecurity, which lead to the use of violence as a beyond- the-table tactic to influence negotiations. While the violence associated with transitional negotiations may undermine those negotiations, Sisk hypothesizes that this need not always be the case. He suggests that "violence tends to polarize and impede negotiations when one single party is clearly culpable. But, when all parties are deemed by observers, especially the international community, as equally culpable, incidents of violence reinforce pressures on them to negotiate."[p. 90] Generally, the best approach to negotiation-inspired political violence is a management approach, aimed at allowing the main negotiations to proceed. Ultimately, the solution to such political violence is to reach a settlement in the main negotiations. Such a settlement would establish new rules which would alleviate the uncertainty of the transition period, and would finalize groups' statuses.